Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 8/23/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Today we’re playing catchup. Tuesday’s album was #525:

Melomane – Glaciers

This eclectic 2007 release captures the lushly lyrical New York art-rockers at the top of their game. It opens with the blackly amusing Hilarious, a breezy Crowded House-ish art-pop tune, frontman/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande blithely chatting up a girl while the climate and the arms race heat up on all sides. Unfriendly Skies is Elvis Costello’s Radio Radio for the millennial generation, followed by the darkly romantic Open Invitation and then Nobody, which takes a turn into tropicalia with its bossa rhythm, trumpet and strings. The real classic here is The Ballot Is the Bullet, a quietly ferocious, stately funeral march in advance for the Bush regime. There’s also the defiantly populist, catchy Little Man’s Castles; the quirky, psychedelic mini-suite This Is Skyhorse; the clever satirical, Gruppo Sportivo-esque Pistolla di Colla (Italian for “glue gun”) and the pensive Thin Ice. The whole thing is streaming at myspace, of all places; strangely missing from the usual sources for free music, it’s still available from Melomane’s site. In the years since this came out, De Gaillande has gone on to equally gripping projects including the Snow (see #890 on this list) and his Bad Reputation project, which plays witty English translations of classic Georges Brassens songs.

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August 27, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Genius of Georges Brassens Revealed for English Listeners

By all accounts, Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation cd is the first full-length album devoted to English-language versions of songs by legendary, obscene French songwriter Georges Brassens. Brassens was more punk than just about anybody: an atheist and a communist, his records were frequently banned by the authorities during his early years in the 1950s, which only fueled his popularity. His songs are irresistibly funny, driven by a snarling contempt for middle-class conformity and an unwavering populism. Why did Brassens never catch on here? De Gaillande sidestepped the question when we asked him last summer. It’s because Brassens’ arrangements are simple to the point of sometimes being threadbare. It’s obvious that Brassens saw himself as a poète maudit with guitar rather than a musician lyricist like Richard Thompson or Steve Kilbey. Here, de Gaillande (frontman and lead guitarist of two of this era’s finest art-rock bands, the Snow and Melomane) tersely and brilliantly fleshes out the arrangements with a frequently ominous blend of gypsy jazz and noir cabaret, featuring his Snow bandmates David Spinley on clarinet, Quentin Jennings on flute, charango and xylophone and Christian Bongers on bass. The result is fearlessly iconoclastic, vicious and hilarious: in other words, it does justice to the originals. And musically, it’s actually an improvement: de Gaillande’s strong, clear baritone adds nuance in a way that the gruff Brassens never could. The songs themselves date from the 40s (the shuffling title track, Brassens’ signature song, defiantly asserting that only the blind wouldn’t join in gleefully to watch his execution) – to the 70s (a literally obscenely funny version of Don Juan).

Brassens didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he had could smell a hypocrite a mile away. Those qualities brought out the cynic in him, front and center here on Public Benches (Les Amoureux des bancs publics). While the masses may see them as fit “for only the impotent or the obese,” they’re actually quite romantic. The song goes on as a ringing and surprisingly uncynical endorsement of PDA – for awhile anyway, until it becomes clear that the point is to let the young lovers have their way since the sum total of their happiness together will pretty much be limited to their time sitting in the park. Likewise, To Die For Your Ideas (Mourir pour des idées) lampoons the limousine liberals who can’t tell the difference between an idea that’s worth sacrificing oneself for and one that’s not, despite all evidence including the “killing fields and mass graves.” That one’s done as a deadpan duet with eclectic chanteuse Keren Ann.

The best songs here are the most harshly funny ones, which resonate with innumerable levels of meaning. On one hand, Don Juan lauds the lothario who’d rescue a lonely woman from a sad, otherwise permanent virginal state, along with the nun who “defrosted the penis of the amputee.” On the other, it’s a sendup of any wannabe ladies man who’d count a night with an utterly undesirable woman as a notch on the belt. The Pornographer rather disingenuously tries to play off Brassens’ sexually explicit lyrics as a decision to relent and give the people what they want – and the images are so over-the-top ridiculous, and perfectly rendered in English, that this version is no less entertaining or explicit than the original. The dilemma is revisited even more entertainingly on Trumpets of Fortune and Fame (Les Trompettes de la renommeé), a snide look at celebrity: then as now, sex sells.

There are three other angry classics here. On one level, Ninety-Five Percent gives a shout-out to a woman who wants sex with love; on another, it’s a springboard for another spot-on, obscenity-laden Brassens spoof of a wannabe stud. The resolutely swinging anticonformist anthem Philistines quietly takes pride in the “unwanted progeny” that the unthinking masses assume will grow up to be cleanshaven accountants: instead, they’re all going to turn into shaggy poets. And the savage I Made Myself Small (Je me suis fait tout petit) drips with equal amounts of contempt for the jealous bitch who’ll spear a flower with her parasol lest her boyfriend think it more attractive than she is, and for the spineless wimp who’ll let her get away with it. The rest of the album includes the wry Princess and the Troubadour (La princesse et le croque-notes), a missed opportunity for statutory rape; Penelope, a cynical look at seducing a married woman, and the surprisingly upbeat, proletarian Song for the Countryman (Chanson pour l’auvergnat).

De Gaillande’s translations match Brassens’ original lyrics in both rhyme and meter, an impressive achievement by any standard, fortuitously enabled by Brassens’ habit of continuing a single, long phrase over the course of several bars. It’s even more impressive considering how well the double entendres and slang of the original have been rendered here. In a couple of instances, de Gaillande mutes the dirty words: for example, in Ninety-Five Percent, “s’emmerde” is translated as “bores her out of her mind” rather than “pisses her off.” But in the spirit of Brassens, he adds an emphatic “fuck” or two where there were none before. Several of the translations’ subtleties are genuinely exquisite: for example, in To Die for Your Ideas, de Gaillande alludes to a guillotine rather than the scaffold in the original lyric. And in Trumpets of Fortune and Fame, he chooses to translate “pederasty” literally rather than going with its usual connotation (“pédérastique” is a somewhat dated way of saying “gay”). Francophones will have a field day comparing all these side by side (one reason why this review has been in the works for such a long time – the album’s official release was this summer). Pierre de Gaillande plays this album with his band along with special guests Joel Favreau (Brassens’ lead guitarist) and Favreau’s longtime collaborator, keyboardist Jean-Jacques Franchin Friday, December 17 at 9 PM at the 92YTribeca on Hudson St.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Revolver’s New Album: Chamber Pop with a Bullet

French trio Revolver’s new album Music for a While sounds like something straight out of the Rive Gauche, 1969 but with smoother, digital production, heavily accented English and period-perfect psychedelic pop songwriting and arrangements. But it’s anything but cheesy. Guitarists Ambroise Willaume and Christophe Musset and cellist Jérémie Arcache play pensive, catchy chamber-pop and folk-pop songs with occasional Beatlisms and blithe harmonies that conceal a frequently dark undercurrent. Don’t confuse this with Belle and Sebastian.

The opening track, Birds in D Minor sets the tone with its brooding folk-pop melody and doomed, crescendoing chorus with Velvets strings: “Birds in my mind, guns to your head, that is how I want to play.” The swaying kiss-off anthem Leave Me Alone maintains the tone, followed by the familiar minor-key ba-ba-ba pop of Balulalow, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Bedsit Poets catalog. Back to You is McCartneyesque with its tricky rhythm, its theme shifting agilely from guitar to piano. The blistering garage rock swing of the simply titled Untitled 1 evokes the great French-American art-rockers Melomane.

Do You Have a Gun is Jimmy Webb meets Donovan meets Jarvis Cocker, a wryly deadpan, mellotron-infused account of a pickup scenario gone down the chute. The carefree, country-tinged Luke Mike and John ups the satirical ante, a scathing travelogue whose crew of spoiled brats on the road hope to find “the dharma way of life.” A Song She Wrote shuffles stiffly on a faux-New Order indie beat until a very funny interlude; Get Around Town is a jaunty, biting minor-key garage rock number, possibly alluding to police brutality. The album winds up with the morosely bopping piano pop of Untitled 2 and the regret-tinged, cynically swinging It’s All Right. This one’s for both fans of the classics (the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle) and the obscure (Damian Quinones).

September 16, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georges Brassens Comes Alive in English – An Interview with Pierre de Gaillande of Bad Reputation

One of the great songwriters of our time, Pierre de Gaillande plays in more great bands than maybe anybody else on the planet. In addition to fronting the poignantly multistylistic chamber-pop band The Snow, he’s recently resurrected his popular, fierily anthemic art-rock band, Melomane. Yet his current focus is a new project, Bad Reputation, the first American group dedicated to performing English-language versions of the songs of iconic French anarchist chansonnier Georges Brassens. In between rehearsals and the media crush of an upcoming cd release show for its debut on Barbes Records (June 12 at the Bell House), de Gaillande managed to find the time to get a few words in edgewise:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Let’s see if I can get this right: you’re American-born, French ancestry, bilingual in English and French – and speak Russian also, I believe – and according to the PR stuff I have here, your introduction to the work of the iconic French anarchist songwriter came via your professor father, as something of a literary exercise. And for that reason you weren’t particularly fond of Brassens as a kid, is that right?

Pierre de Gaillande: No. I was born in Paris, France to a French father and American mother. I was born with dual citizenship – we lived in Paris for the first seven years of my life. My first language was French, but my mother spoke English to me as a child and I could speak a little English when we moved to the states.

LCC: When did you start listening to Brassens purely for pleasure?

PDG: Brassens was always on in my house when we were growing up. It was part of the musical landscape of our home like the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, the Dubliners, the Kingston Trio and a multitude of other French singers. I always liked listening to Brassens. What I didn’t like was my father’s didactic and proprietary attitude towards everything French in general, and Brassens in particular. Which has changed, by the way: Brassens is a topic we definitely connect on these days.

LCC: The work of some French musical icons has insinuated itself into American culture: Piaf and Gainsbourg for example. Is there an explanation for why Brassens never caught on here, or anywhere else in the anglophone world as far as I can tell?

PDG: There are two reasons for this as far as I can tell. One is that the pleasure in Brassens is primarily lyrical. Without an understanding of the lyrics, at least half the point is gone. The other reason is that unlike Brel and Gainsbourg, Brassens never explored any new musical territory in the arrangements of his songs – he kept his arrangement to an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, his voice, and occasional lead guitar. He only used a lead guitarist live on certain television appearances, never on stage. Just an aside, Brassens’ guitarist for the last ten years of his career was Joel Favreau, who has agreed to come to New York in November to do a Brassens festival at Symphony Space, for which Bad Reputation will be the house band with a bunch of French singers. So this is an extremely proud occasion for me and a chance to come full circle.

So unless you really love this kind of folk guitar music, if you don’t speak French, there aren’t many other points of entry into Brassens’ music besides very catchy melodies and his rich voice. By contrast, Gainsbourg explored all kinds of musical territory, like rock, reggae, funk, and disco, and he pandered to an English-speaking crowd by dropping English in his lyrics constantly. Brassens just didn’t pander. You had to go to him, he wasn’t coming to you.

LCC: What is your motivation in putting out this record? It’s not like you’re riding a wave of Brassens success, or tapping into some vast cultural resonance, at least in this country…

PDG: It’s a lot of fun. And I think it is extremely culturally relevant. This country can definitely use some voices championing what Brassens stood for; a deep love of poetry, history, literary and intellectual achievement, a disdain for consumerism, fanaticism, and the sheep mentality in any form, and a morality based on humane common sense, not religion.

LCC: What would you say was the biggest challenge in translating Brassens? Contemporizing dated slang? Or attempting to maintain both the same rhyme and meter as the original French lyrics?

PDG: The biggest challenge was translating very specific French slang, and deciding when to make the meaning gibe with the original time period, 50s through the 70s, or when to make it sound current. And of course all of it had to rhyme and fit in the same number of syllables if possible. One little example: in the song Penelope the first line is “Toi l’epouse modele, le grillon du foyer.” I chose to translate that literally as “You, the cricket of the hearth; you, the ideal spouse.” As far as I know, “the cricket of the hearth” is not an expression in English, but to me it is such a graceful way of saying “housewife” that I chose to translate it literally. There were scores of decisions to make, and on many occasions I used a current English expression, sometimes I didn’t.

LCC: Brassens was kind of gangsta, he went for shock value every time. I know at least a few of his songs were banned in France. How much of that shock value were you able to maintain – or does any of that still have the capacity to shock, in the era of Fitty and L’il Wayne?

PDG: Brassens was a punk. He just didn’t care what “‘the public” thought of him. If you listen to the song The Pornographer on my cd, you’ll see I tried to leave in all the words that might get bleeped on the radio these days. Does anything shock anymore, I don’t know. What’s more shocking in Brassens is the subject matter; a 13 year old girl who tries to seduce a much older musician (Princess and the Troubadour), a nun who warms up a man’s penis because he has no arms (Don Juan), a marquise who gives a man crabs (Trumpets of Fortune and Fame) and on and on and on…

LCC: Brassens loved double entendres, and he was very good at them – as you are, in your own songwriting with the Snow and Melomane. In translating these songs, did you ever find yourself having to choose one level of meaning over another? How did you handle that?

PDG: Good question. Sometimes I had to compromise or improvise. Bear with me while I give you an example. There is a moment in Penelope where he says “Il n’y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un coeur/Qui bat la campagne et galope” which literally means, “There’s no reason here to whip a heart/Which beats a path into the fields at a gallop.” It’s actually a triple entendre. The first level of meaning is a play on words for “here’s no cause to whip a cat [fouetter un chat]” which basically means there’s no reason to freak out, you need to relax, but he changes it to “whip a heart” so that it fits with the next pun, which is “beating a path.” Now the heart is beating, and it is galloping like a horse in the fields (la campagne.) But “battre la campagne” also means to go on a war campaign. So there are three levels of meaning densely packed in to two lines.

So what I did was keep the heart beating motif, but instead of whipping a heart, I used “swinging a heart” as in “there’s not enough room in here to swing a cat.” This then connected nicely with the beating heart in the second half, “Beating a path to distant fields.” I sacrificed one expression (whipping a cat) and substituted an English one (swinging a cat). The whole project was full of these kinds of verbal gymnastics. It’s a game, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

LCC: Above all – and I think this is the key to his success in France at least – Brassens is hilarious! But a lot of the humor is in the wordplay – it doesn’t translate. Literally. Or does it?

PDG: Some does, some doesn’t. I did my best to capture it. Brassens had about 200 songs in his catalogue, and some of the best ones are untranslatable, but there are many that do work, and that’s my mission. I think there are tons of hilarious moments on this CD.

LCC: The press release here says you’ve deliberately avoided trying to make rock music out of these songs, even to the extent of not utilizing drums on the album. I know that Brassens was not an enormous fan of rock, and that you’re trying to be purist about this. At the same time I can’t help thinking, this guy was pretty punk. You know, the eternal refusenik, he wouldn’t let anybody fuck with him. These songs would kick ass if you turned up the guitar, added more of a beat, brought the vocals up in the mix, don’t you think?

PDG: First off, the vocals are way up in the mix, just as they are in the original. I deliberately did not want to make a rock or “modern” version of Brassens. There is a great band in France called Brassens Not Dead that does hardcore thrash punk versions of Brassens, and they do a fantastic job, and they capture his punk spirit to a tee. There are also tons of crappy “modern versions” of Brassens in France, they are embarrassing and wrongheaded, at least to my ears. The best versions of his stick to the gypsy-jazz folk vibe that inspired him. I wanted this introduction to Brassens for English speaking people to be all about the lyrics. The music is there, and it is artfully executed and arranged by my fantastic band, but it just felt natural to stay away from the drums. The last seven albums I have made were rock albums, and once you start layering sounds and adding instruments, there’s no turning back. I needed to explore having the courage to make my voice the most prevalent sound on the album.

LCC: Can I continue playing devil’s advocate? Where do you get the idea that most Americans – who can’t even find France on a map, let alone have any awareness of who Georges Brassens is or why he might be worth discovering – would have the slightest interest in these songs? Or is there something here that might resonate with at least a cult audience?

PDG: Americans, or anyone else for that matter, can take it or leave it, it’s not up to me to make them like it. I’ve never made music with a concern for how it’s going to be received. Like all of my music, this started with me playing guitar and scribbling notes frantically, by myself in the middle of the night, completely absorbed in a fascinating pursuit. I think there are a lot of people out there who like a good melody attached to some really smart lyrics. They will enjoy this music if they want to, I can’t control that.

LCC: Your new album includes a cynical song about celebrity worship – talk about Brassens being years ahead of his time, huh?; a very funny one about being pussywhipped; a defiant, punkish one about staying true to oneself; at least one and maybe more that were banned in France; and the poignant outsider anthem Bad Reputation, the first song Brassens ever wrote, from which you take the name of the band. Do you have a favorite? Or is it one that’s not here, that you haven’t covered yet?

PDG: I have translated 23 songs, 13 of which are on this album. There are 3 or 4 that were really hard to leave off the album, including Poor Martin (Pauvre Martin), The Bistro (Le Bistro), and The Old Man (L’ancetre). They will be on future albums or singles. I also have two favorites that I’m beginning to simmer in my brainpan for future translation: “La Rose, la bouteille, et la poignee de main” (The Rose, The Bottle, and The Handshake, which is about how all three of those things are abandoned and then adopted by the narrator) and one called Hecatombe which is about a group of irate women murdering some policemen at an outdoor market.

LCC: I’m curious – besides you, does anybody else in the band speak French?

PDG: Quentin Jennings, who plays keyboards, charango and xylophone in Bad Reputation, is British, but speaks French and helped with some translation problems when I got stuck. Christian Bongers, our bassist, is German but has a pretty good handle on French.

Pierre de Gaillande and Bad Reputation play the cd release show for the album on June 12 at the Bell House at 7:30 PM.

June 7, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Introducing the Pre-War Ponies

A fixture of the New York music scene, Daria Grace got her start playing bass in recently resuscitated art-rockers Melomane, and was one of the original Moonlighters – fans of that band took to calling her replacement “the new Daria.” But with a voice like hers – a warm, clear, billowy soprano with just the slightest hint of grit that tails off sometimes with a subtle vibrato – there can be only one Daria Grace. While holding down the bass spot in her husband Jack’s terrific country band, she found her way back to oldtime steampunk swing with the Pre-War Ponies. They should be far better-known than they are – this beautifully sunny cd is completely and unselfconsciously romantic and one of the best albums of the year so far. Grace shies away from standards – she’s far more at home with obscure sheet music rescued from junk shops, a reliable source for much of her material. She plays baritone ukelele in this band just as she used to do in the Moonlighters along with rambunctious trombonist J. Walter Hawkes, former Cocktail Angst pianist Jon Dryden and Doug Largent on bass, with fellow New York retro chanteuse Sasha Dobson providing harmonies on one track.

Grace follows the Connee Boswell version of All I Do Is Dream of You, Dryden adding jaunty barrelhouse piano beneath Hawkes’ wry muted trombone accents. It’s something of a shock that at least until now, the swaying, breezy Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn never became the borough’s official theme (once Marty Markowitz leaves office, the band can approach the new Borough President). Hawkes joins Grace here on uke to up the vintage ambience. Got the South in My Soul – a concert favorite and a Lee Wiley hit from 1932 – features a period-perfect, balmy trombone solo. Two Sleepy People (a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938) absolutely nails the cozy, endorphin-stoked ambience for two lovers who’ve been out all night and are out of thing to say but not to do with each other.

The band recasts Heart and Soul, the lone standard here, as a brisk 1920s style proto-swing strut. The darkly tender Under the Russian Moon, floating on the waves of Dryden’s accordion, is the most delightful obscurity of the whole bunch. The album winds up tantalizingly with The Gentleman Just Wouldn’t Say Goodnight, another junk shop find that Grace credits as “one of the most beautiful songs that nobody has ever heard of.” Grace weaves through its tasty major/minor changes with a wistful, late-night feel that is pure soul. With the Jack Grace Band’s killer new cd hot off the press, that group has been gigging up a storm lately; the Pre-War Ponies’ next scheduled gig is at Rodeo Bar on July 26.

May 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Snow – I Die Every Night

Here we are in March with the first classic album of 2010 (this one actually came out in mid-January). The Snow’s debut album True Dirt was good: this is a lushly arranged, thoughtful, funny, richly lyrical art-rock masterpiece. Bandleader Pierre de Gaillande has been writing good, frequently great songs for several years, throughout his days with Melomane, Sea Foxx and numerous other side projects (like his English-language Georges Brassens cover band Bad Reputation), but this is the strongest effort he’s been a part of yet. Putting keyboardist/chanteuse Hilary Downes out in front of the group was a genius move, even if it was only logical. She’s a torch singer straight out of the Chris Connor/June Christy mold (or a darker Nellie McKay) with an alternately coy and murderous way of sliding up to a note and nailing it. She also contributes half of the songs on the album, alternating with Gaillande from track to track, with an additional number, a rueful tango, written by multi-reed virtuoso David Spinley. The rhythm section of Christian Bongers (ex-Botanica) on bass and Jeffrey Schaeffer on drums slink through the shadows as the clarinet or saxes soar above the swirl of layers and layers of keyboards and the occasional snarl and clang of the guitar. There are other bands who leap from genre to genre as avidly as the Snow do here, but few who have such obvious fun doing it.

The opening track is Albatross, an ironically straightforward, metaphorically loaded ballad by Downes that makes stately art-rock out of a Gaillande garage guitar riff. Handle Your Weapon, by Gaillande, throws out a lifeline to a possible would-be suicide miles from civilization in a symbolic middle of nowhere, swinging along on the pulse of Downes’ electric piano. By contrast, The Silent Parade – sort of a signature song for the band – delivers the understated, menacing majesty of the snowstorm to end all snowstorms, the last way anyone would expect the world to end at this point in history. The warmly torchy, soul-inflected Fool’s Gold could be a requiem for a relationship – or for the promise that indie rock seemed it might deliver on for a moment but never did.

Undertow is a tongue-in-cheek clinic in jazzy syncopation, a showcase for Downes’ darkly allusive lyrical wit, matched by Gaillande on the wryly swinging, Gainsbourg-esque Reptile, a hot-blooded creature’s lament. The most menacing cut on the album is the hypnotic, woozy 6/8 masquerade-ball themed Slow Orbit. The album winds up with Downes’ understatedly bitter, minor-key chamber-rock ballad Shadows and Ghosts and Gailllande’s hypnotic, aptly titled psychedelic anthem Life Is Long and Strange, far more subtle than it might seem. Live, the band surprisingly manage to capture most of the atmospherics of their studio work; watch this space for NYC dates.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Melomane at Union Hall, Brooklyn NY 4/25/08

While Lucid Culture takes pride in spreading the word about the best under-the-radar happenings around town, it’s always fun to revisit the A-list, to catch a show by one of New York’s most exciting, popular acts. Tonight’s show strikingly reaffirmed what a great band Melomane is, not just one of the best in New York, but in the entire world. And also a reminder of how much fun and visually entertaining their live show is, with everyone trading off licks, throwing in silly quotes from pop songs, orchestrating a little mayhem into their impeccably crafted tunes. And tonight they did it mostly with songs about the end of the world. The only bad thing about this show was that it ended: they called it a night after fifty minutes onstage, perhaps because their sizzling new three-piece horn section doesn’t know any more songs.

Forget the Melomane you might have known when they first started out, the artsy, Mediterranean-inflected, somewhat Roxy Music-ish pop band they were around the turn of the century. This band is a whole lot darker, a LOT louder, more powerful than ever. They hit the ground running with the title track from their second album Solresol, a scorching, fast minor-key anthem that takes flight on one of frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s signature eerie guitar hooks, anchored by multi-instrumentalist Quentin Jennings’ ominous organ. Then they took a lengthy excursion through Gaillande’s ongoing “disaster song cycle,” including new songs about apocalypse by never-ending solar eclipse, flood, volcanic eruption, collision with an asteroid and more. The volcano song, Vesuvius was a gleefully morbid, cabaret-inflected number. Their sky-is-falling song caught the audience completely off-guard with two dramatic, false endings to its incongruously Stonesy boogie blues outro, capped by a dark minor chord that rang out majestically at the end. Two more of the end-of-the-world songs were blackly humorous, slow 6/8 numbers. In the country band that shares with her husband Jack, bassist Daria Grace is all about the swing and the sway: in this unit, she gets to play a lot of melody, including one gripping, soaring solo, a lot of slides and chords for extra impact. The horn section, whose name is still up in the air – the Brassholes? The Brass-ieres? The band can’t decide – gave the crescendos extra fire and bite. They also played what was ironically the first song Paris-born Gaillande ever wrote in French – an amusing tune about the relationship between a cigarette and a match – bouncing along on Grace’s Motown bassline. They closed with the weird, multi-part, Skyhooks soundalike This Is Skyhorse from their most recent and best album, Glaciers, one of our picks for ten best albums of 2007. Melomane plays June 13 at BAM Café: if you like sweepingly orchestrated art-rock, or just plain good fun, you would be crazy to miss this show.

April 27, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Melomane at Hank’s Saloon, Brooklyn NY 6/7/07

Living proof that epic grandeur can be synonymous with great fun. This well-established New York art-rock unit is part eerie 60s garage band, part meticulously orchestrated symphonic rock. As much as it was a little incongruous seeing them in these surroundings – Hank’s is a wonderfully inexpensive, friendly, old-school place that usually features country music – it was a blissfully good show. They bookended the set with a cover of the old Lou Reed chestnut We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together, the only song on which the band lacked tightness, and in fact the only really lighthearted moment of the night. Melomane translates loosely from the French as “passion for fun,” and there was no lack of either, although since 9/11 they’ve become a very dark band with a remarkable political awareness, even for an age where pretty much everybody is united against Bush & Corp. Foremost among the songs they played tonight were a trio from their ongoing “disaster song cycle,” as frontman/lead guitarist Pierre de Gaillande put it. One of them was a bouncy pop song about the Vesuvius eruption that essentially cast the Romans as a bunch of fascists. Another was about a meteorite. Their global warming song, possibly titled This Celestial Orb was the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, minor-key number that began with de Gaillande’s guitar playing fast, biting broken chords while keyboardist Frank Heer did the same. It built to a haunting chorus, “gravity reverses and the sea and sky trade places.” After a spur-of-the-moment interlude in 7/8 time, they tacked on a sarcastic, poppy finale with a tricky false ending that caught the audience completely off guard.

This is a talented group of musicians. Heer doubled on lead guitar, and at the end of a slowly unwinding, overtly political number, played a perfect dual guitar solo with Gaillande. To their credit, it sounded absolutely nothing like Hotel California. Keyboardist Quentin Jennings played haunting cello on several numbers. It was also good to see nimble, inventive bass player Daria Grace (also of the Jack Grace Band and the Prewar Ponies) singing harmonies again. There was a time when she’d pushed her voice too far, and it took a long time to come back. The good news is that it’s back and as bright as ever.

The biggest hit with the audience was a request, Going Places, a spot-on parody of trendoids:

Let’s get stressed out to impress and then let’s go out
You have the best high-fashion bedhead to go with your sleepy mind
And if the night should segregate us you go your way and I’ll go mine

The song went doublespeed after the second verse and by the time they wound it up, it was completely punked out, Gaillande screamingly hoarsely.

Otherwise, the band displayed a welcome gravitas, most powerfully evoked with the two keyboards going at once. They’re playing mostly in minor keys, and Gaillande has become an excellent lead guitarist. Melomane’s show tonight was a reminder yet again of the uncontestable fact that the most transcendent, powerful moments of live music in New York aren’t found at Madison Square Garden or Irving Plaza or for that matter even the Annex. The good stuff, the really great stuff is happening at cozy little neighborhood joints like Hank’s.

June 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Melomane – Glaciers

Their best album. New York art-rockers Melomane have made the quantum leap from being a good band to being one of the best bands around. Their sound is lush, orchestrated and somewhat Mediterranean-inflected with meticulously arranged layers of guitars, strings, horns and keyboards. If you wish the Shins had some substance, if you’re wistful for Pulp at their mid-90s peak – or Roxy Music circa Avalon – this is for you. And while it’s a truism that this era’s musicians stand in opposition to the Cheney/Halliburton regime, Melomane have never shied away from taking a stand, as they do here more passionately and courageously than just about anyone else out there.

The cd opens with the blackly amusing Hilarious, a breezy art-pop song that evokes Crowded House. Frontman/guitarist Pierre de Gaillande blithely comes on to a girl while the climate and the arms race heat up on all sides. The next cut Unfriendly Skies has to be the best anti-entertainment industrial complex song written since Elvis Costello did Radio Radio almost thirty years ago. It’s a driving song, set to an ominous, driving beat, a fiery shot across the bow of corporate radio:

From unfriendly skies comes a dull monotony
To conquer and divide, entertainmentopoly
We drive so fast, we get so lost

I’ll turn it off
The channel’s clear, it gives me no alternative
One day soon I know

We will break the stranglehold
Hack apart the snake and
Take back what they stole

The cd continues with the darkly romantic Open Invitation and then Nobody, which takes a turn into tropicalia with its bossa rhythm, trumpet and strings. The next track, The Little Man’s Castles – a big hit at live shows – opens with a gorgeous, Byrds-style lick into a propulsive, backbeat-driven verse with trumpet and keys. There’s a nice bridge right before the outro featuring an all-too-brief, tersely melodic bass solo from Daria Grace (who also plays in her husband Jack Grace’s country band, and leads a charming old-timey outfit called the Prewar Ponies). The following cut This Is Skyhorse starts out totally early 80s new wave, with an acoustic intro into something that sounds like Turning Japanese by the Vapors, then bass and percussion, then back to the lick with distorted, processed vocals. And then it morphs into a bluesy 70s rock song. It’s a weird series of permutations that would do the Skyhooks proud. Could the song title be a cleverly veiled reference?

The high point of the cd, and instant candidate for best song of the year, no contest, is The Ballot Is the Bullet, a quietly ferocious, 6/8 rallying cry to any one of us who might find the courage to stand up to the traitors and thugs who brought us Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act:

You’re fodder and you’re grist
I think you get my gist
And you know these people don’t like you
They walk without souls

They’re turning our green world into a black hole
They’re out of their minds
We’ve run out of time
In the occident and the orient

Please assassinate the precedent

“Precedent” is what the lyric sheet says, anyway. Major props to Melomane for articulating what most of us never dare to speak. Out of the second chorus, the song builds majestically with a starkly powerful minor-key climb from Gaillande’s guitar, then the organ kicks in with a desperate, furious crescendo. The song then takes a bitter, depressed climb down to the intro and ends on the somber note where it began. And while Gaillande makes it clear that “We’re in love with love/That’s why we’re singing this,” it’s clear that this song is not about turning the other cheek.

Welcome comic relief arrives eventually with the pun-laden, tongue-in-cheek, Pistolla di Colla (Italian for “glue gun”). It’s a clever postmorten for the end of a relationship, evoking nothing less than artsy 70s Dutch satirists Gruppo Sportivo:

Some Roman gallivanter gifted in soothing banter
He’s cooing his sticky catchphrases while life decays in phases
She washed her hands and toes beneath the Caesar’s frescoes
With who, God only knows

Then they segue into a theme which will remain nameless here: you have to hear it to fully appreciate the joke. The following cut Thin Ice is a ballad: mournful harmonies fly over the quiet, reflective verse:

Plumbing the depths of the sadness that springs from confusion
And skating on thin ice

The album’s last song is anticlimactic to the extreme, but they saved it til the end so you can just stop there if that’s your preference.

Throughout the cd, Gaillande’s writing is more direct and hits harder than ever, and his voice has deepened, revealing a welcome, newfound gravitas. This is a terrific headphone album, a great road album and a shot of adrenaline for any disheartened freedom fighter. Five bagels. With arugula, prosciutto di Parma and capers. [postscript – after a hiatus that took up much of 2008 and 2009 as Gaillande busied himself with other projects, namely the Snow and Bad Reputation, Melomane seem to be at least a part-time project again, a welcome development]

June 3, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments